An Inventory of Adaptation to climate change in the UK: challenges and findings

Climate change science has been promoting adaptation measures for some years. The message has been that the climate is changing and people need to be prepared. However, while there has been an increasing investment in the ‘science of adaptation’, there has been less, if any, attention paid to the ‘practice of adaptation’, i.e. is adaptation occurring, and if so, how, where and why? There is now a clear demand from policy makers to answer these questions and specifically to answer them with relation to actions in the UK. 

The objective of the DEFRA-funded project ‘Linking adaptation research and practice’, is to develop a systematic categorisation of observed adaptation in the UK in both the private and the public sectors. There are two outputs from this project:

i) An inventory of examples of adaptation in practice in four sectors in the UK, in the form of an Excel spreadsheet 
ii) This report, which describes the process of cataloguing the examples and interpreting the data.

The inventory is a compilation of some adaptation actions that have occurred in the UK to date. It includes examples of adaptation to climate change in the public and private sectors, as well as voluntary and community groups, NGOs, other associations and networks (including, for example, trade associations) and individuals. The data presented in the inventory were collected primarily from academic literature and secondary reports that were identified through consultation with key experts in four sectors: water (supply / flood management), construction, rural land-use (biodiversity and conservation / agriculture and forestry) and transport. The inventory does not present an exhaustive collection of all the adaptations that are taking place across the UK, but it illustrates a range of different kinds of adaptation. 

While developing the inventory, it became clear that there were a number of practical and intellectual challenges in designing and collating such an inventory. The key challenge involved identifying and then categorising the data using an appropriate organising principle with clear criteria. The criteria used are as follows:

•    Name of institution and brief details
•    Adaptation outputs and details of outputs
•    Overall summary
•    Classification of adaptation (implementing adaptation actions or building adaptive capacity)
•    Characteristics of adaptation (how adaptation is happening in the institution, i.e. policy, organisational or behavioural change)
•    Purposefulness of adaptation (whether the adaptation is planned or unplanned)
•    Triggers and drivers (the reasons why adaptation is happening)
•    Administrative and management scale (i.e. the level at which adaptation is happening: international, European (EU), national, devolved administrations, regional, local, individual)
•    Geographic location of adaptation
•    Size of institution
•    Ownership of the institution (i.e. Public, private or other)
•    Source of information

The organising principle adopted was the institutional analysis and development framework which suggests that actions are often shaped by social and physical institutions, in the form of regulations and laws, physical structures and people, and codes of behaviour. This conceptual framework is discussed in the report. 

A second challenge involved the process of defining adaptation. Adaptation can mean taking any action to prepare for climate change which is intentional or accidental. This broad definition can then include any action taken by anyone. To make this definition operational, we adopted the UKCIP two-way categorisation of adaptation. On re-visiting this definition on completion of the project, it was found to be very fitting for the nature of adaptations in practice that we have come across and presented in the inventory accompanying the report. 

Another challenge came in drawing conclusions across sectors. It is difficult to compare the sectors owing to the nature of the inventory which is neither exhaustive nor generalisable. The inventory shows that there are a range of adaptations taking place in the UK across sectors and institutions in many different ways. Within each sector that we investigated, adaptation is clearly happening yet each sector is at an ‘early stage’, although the examples collected reveal some general patterns. There are few examples of practical actions being implemented; most examples, reflect a building of adaptive capacity. This appears to be happening through recruitment of individuals, establishing thinking groups, or setting up task forces to think through the issues associated with climate change. There are however, also some policy changes and laws being implemented which will affect adaptation possibilities in the future. The majority of the adaptations identified are occurring in the public sector. As yet, there is little evidence of behavioural change in either the public or private sectors. Most of the examples are occurring at the national scale, in the devolved administrations and at the regional scale with few examples at local levels. 

Compiling the inventory has highlighted the difficulty of judging which actions can be classified as ‘climate change adaptations’ and of these which are really planned as adaptations to climate change. By this we mean that it is difficult to identify which adaptations are taking place as a response to weather related (rather than risk factors) and of these, which are in response to expected future climate change. There are two clear difficulties. The first relates to the difficulty of identifying drivers of change and judging which actions can be classified as adaptations specifically relating to climate change impacts as opposed to non-climate related impacts, such as the impacts of development intervention on biodiversity. The second relates to the timing of the adaptation, i.e. is it a deliberate response to an impact or is its timing coincidental. There are many drivers of adaptation related to weather impacts (such as flooding) or climate change itself, however these are often of minor influence in comparison to others such as: general risk management, other government policy initiatives not related to climate change and financial cost-saving behaviour. There appear to be very few, if any adaptations that have been undertaken solely in response to expected climate change. This is in clear contrast to reported mitigation actions, some of which would be unnecessary or even undesirable other than for the climate change related threats, for example, carbon sequestration and the rapid move to renewable energy.

There is a mixture of planned and unplanned adaptation taking place. More of the examples that we came across were planned and deliberately being carried out in response to the impacts of climate change and the need to adapt. Although it should be remembered that this classification of ‘planned’ and unplanned’ in the inventory reflects our subjective judgement based on secondary data.

We can conclude that Government needs to be aware that every action it takes could generate adaptive action that may or may not produce adaptations that are beneficial. On some occasions climate change is potentially being used to support an action that is desired for other reasons, again not all of these are generating adaptation benefits. Relying on climate change to act as a trigger for change in the private and public sector is not advisable, as institutions of all types seem to be driven by other pressures and drivers. We suggest that the importance of climate change adaptation needs to be built into many different Directives and strategies, and incorporated into existing networks and partnerships such as those initiated by UKCIP. Since most current adaptations are justified on co-benefits and/or are ‘no regret’ options, this should be remembered when developing new governmental policies and strategies that do not relate to climate change. 

Tompkins, E., E. Boyd, S. A. Nicholson-Cole, EK Weatherhead, N. W. Arnell, and W. N. Adger